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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

In Other Words: Let Us Now Praise the Common Yet Uncommon Cicadas

Courtesy Derek Durbin. Found in his yard. 

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Okay, I hope I’m not the only one out there. There must be more. Is anyone else excited about the return of the periodical cicadas? It’s going to be huge. I’m calling it Bugstock because it’s going to be a raucous event and it’s all free. 

I’ve been through a few of these cycles already and I’ve never experienced a problem with the cicadas - well, other than there are so many and they're noisy. They are, in fact, fascinating little creatures. I know some of you are concerned, worried, and a bit freaked out by their return. I mean, after all, don’t all evil things have red eyes? But that’s only in the movies. Some think it’s some sort of plague. It’s not. 

We are one of the few places on the planet that experience 17-year periodical cicadas. Kind of hard to think of your hometown as exotic, eh? But we are. 

The escape chimneys of our 17-year visitors have been popping up in the yard for a few weeks. They’ll emerge when the temperature is right and then they will sing and mate and then die. And they’ll do all of that in a span of about three weeks or so. That’s quite a show. It’s darned Shakespearean in scope.  Even Socrates spoke about the symbolism of cicadas tying them to the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection. 

Cicada chimney found in my yard.

I agree that these little rascals can be loud. In fact, they can be as loud as a lawnmower or a jackhammer - about 100 decibels. I’m hoping it will drown the music from that bar across the river that so many of us hear.  But cicadas won’t hurt us. They don’t bite. They just buzz around, strutting their stuff, and singing in hopes of finding a mate while trying to avoid being eaten by birds, bats, wasps, spiders, foxes, owls, sometimes reptiles, and even humans. They are loud for a reason - it’s how they find a mate. The male and female have distinct sounds but it often sounds like one cacophonous roar to us. But they are talking to each other, whispering sweet nothings to, well, the world. After seventeen years, I’m sure they have lots to say. 

One of my favorite parody commercial jingles was for Snappy Cicada Pizza sung to the promotional song for Snappy Tomato Pizza. No doubt someone will put them on pizza. Or in a salad. Or in the wok. On the grill. I’m sure we will see lots of recipes for them. (Here is the link to the parody.

Early emergent cicada found by Christine Fennell Smalley.

To be honest, I am fascinated by their 17-year cycle. There are so many variable cycles for so many insects, plants, and continents in the world. These cycles sometimes often overlap, intertwine, act, and react to each other. But that keeps life on Earth fascinating and, well, lively. 

A butterfly has a life cycle that may last up to eleven months. A house fly’s life cycle is about ten days. But a 17-year cycle is pretty special indeed. It’s something that we should celebrate because we see so few of the cycles. This is my fourth 17-year cycle and this may be the last one I experience. But as we become aware of how plants, animals, and even continents drift around in cycles, we should marvel at the complexity and beauty of nature’s operation. Imagine all of these cycles as Venn diagrams driving bumper cars. We think there’s no pattern in the bumps, near hits, and avoidances only until one emerges. 

So here are a few interesting tidbits about cicadas. After they finish aerating our soil, they emerge in huge numbers for safety and survival. Since they are easy prey they need sheer numbers on their side. And that means that there will probably be more birds and other predators feasting on these slow creatures this year too. The air will be alive with cicada hunters. 

Cicada tunnels in my garden.

Cicadas are nature’s pruners. They won’t destroy trees or plants. They may cover a tree but they won’t destroy it. Why? They don’t have mandibles. No jaws, no chewing, no biting. No problem. The females will, though, cut slits in branches to lay eggs and that could possibly weaken branches. Cicadas are only interested in mating. But just as a precaution, cover young trees and even wrap the young trunks. And you might consider postponing planting trees until autumn. 

Cicadas are NOT locusts. They are insects. They are not grasshoppers.  Don’t confuse the two. They are not the Biblical plagues. Our crops are safe. Everything is safe. In fact, I’d argue that we are enriched by their appearance. Eventually our soil will be enriched when all of their bodies return to compost the planet. I hope the same can be said for us as well.

18 N. Fort Thomas Ave. 

I am fascinated by cicadas but I’m more fascinated by these grand cycles that layer one on top another to form this complex life support system that we rely upon. And the more I learn, the more I realize how much we need diversity in our life. We certainly don’t know everything, but we are getting better at asking great questions that can lead us to new and useful information and perhaps some wisdom. And a lot of those answers lead us to enrichment through diversity.

People tend to freak out over what they don’t understand. Our reactions reflect how we approach the world. As a species we try to control the world but we have learned that we cannot control it. So it’s time to live with the world instead of in conflict with it. 

I enjoy and am always fascinated by the diversity of our natural heritage and instead of being frightened by it, I say we embrace it, celebrate it, and enjoy it for what it is - a wonder of the world. 

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